Secrets are Lies!
Sharing is Caring!
Privacy is Theft!
They are watching you. At least in Dave Eggers‘ novel The Circle they are.
The Circle starts off with Mae, an Ivy League graduate who has come back to her home town after graduation to fall into a job at the local utility company.
She does not fit in.
The utility company is straight out of the 1960s and simply having grown up using technology as an every day thing make Mae stand out even amongst the IT department. Her talents and education are clearly being wasted in that position.
Then her college roommate Annie throws her a lifeline in the form of an opportunity to come and work at The Circle.
The Circle is mash-up combo of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever other variations on social media you can think up. But their real break-through, their “secret sauce” as it were, is TruYou. This requires anybody who uses the services of The Circle to do so only with their verified, real world ID. This of course completely cleared up all of the bad stuff on their services (because nobody ever says anything mean, stupid, hateful, or whatever using their real name!), making them the front runner and allowing them to buy up all the competition. So if you want be involved in social media, you have to go to The Circle, which means using your real identity.
Annie is a rising star at The Circle, so her word gets Mae in the door and into a position in customer support where she quickly goes to work and does well. She enjoys the immediate feedback that the company rating system gives her and the company offers a vast array of perks and benefits. It is every Silicon Valley fantasy campus you have ever imagined. But she stumbles a bit as the requirements of the job are made clear to her.
The company expects her to be an active participant in their social media at all times. She is called to her bosses office when she disappears for a weekend because of a medical emergency at her parent’s house. He understands the need to be with family and is primarily critical that Mae made no social media posts along the way. This is framed as selfishness as he asks if other people facing similar situations wouldn’t benefit from reading her experiences in dealing with the medical issue. Mae meekly agrees and promises to do better.
Mae continues to stumble as she is introduced to each aspect of being a part of The Circle, the social media requirements, the corporate ranking based on employee activity, the conversion rate that indicates how much her activity has influenced buying habits, all of these become challenges for her. By I was that far along in the book, the progression of the book was pretty well charted out in my mind.
You and I might find the requirements of The Circle far beyond the pale, but young Mae… and The Circle favors hiring young, just out of college employees that they can mold… just like real Silicon Valley… reacts like Boxer in Animal Farm and vows to work harder at being a good employee of The Circle and spends nearly all of her waking hours toiling in the social media fields.
Meanwhile, The Circle has other plans. The have a tiny, low power, inexpensive, high-def camera system that they plan to produce by the millions. This will let anybody set up cameras anywhere that can be watched by anybody on the net. The Circle is interested in absolute transparency and predicts that once every action is seen and recorded by the cameras… all their data is stored away in data centers run by The Circle… crime will be a thing of the past.
They get their local congresswoman to wear such a camera at all times, making everything she does available for view on the internet. She has gone “transparent.” Soon there is popular pressure for politicians in general to go “transparent” and the cry becomes loud enough that many fear they will be seen as hiding things. There is a waiting list to go “transparent.”
Of course, some oppose this sort of thing, citing a right to privacy. The Circle sticks to the well worn line used by nascent totalitarians everywhere, that you have no need to fear transparency if you have nothing to hide. And, sure enough, any public figure that speaks out against The Circle is discovered to be involved with child porn, illegal drugs, gambling, or some other serious crime that discredits their objections completely. Mae’s Luddite ex-boyfriend notes how convenient this is for The Circle.
Mae will have none of that and her journey into the depths of The Circle are far from over. The Circle doesn’t want anybody… individuals, governments, corporations… to have any secrets. Well, except for The Circle itself. Proprietary information… trade secrets… you understand, right?
Every discussion of this book I have seen heads pretty quickly towards Orwell and 1984. Cameras everywhere, enforced orthodoxy, the ruthless destruction of all opposition and the co-opting of all fellow travelers… that all lines right up. But unlike 1984, where this was all in the furtherance of an endless war to consume resources and keep people poor and afraid, The Circle offers safety and happiness and freedom from worry while promising a world of consumption and distraction. That gets us more into Brave New World territory.
So the ideas behind the book are in no way new and if you have read much in the dystopian genre (throw Player Piano and Fahrenheit 451 on the fire as well) the book is going to evolve along a pretty predictable path for you. The setup of each scene in the book seemed to telegraph the results. If you are looking for surprises, The Circle won’t deliver.
What The Circle does bring to that genre is a fresh coat of possibility/plausibility.
The book takes place in the not too distant future and the technology that is brought up to accomplish the goals of The Circle feels all too easily reached from today. 1984 requires permanent war and a ruthless tyranny. Brave New World revolved around strange technology and the wholesale replacement of religion with consumerism as mandated by the government.
The Circle just has social media and a few gadgets that don’t seem that far off. Its power grows much more organically, and plays on things we already wonder about. Is that Xbox One watching you day and night through the Kinect features? Doesn’t your smart phone know where you are at all times? Are you sure that, when you tell Google not to track your web searches to be stored away and analyzed, that they aren’t just doing it anyway. Add in the fact that The Circle feels a lot like the HR-strangled, youth oriented, “everybody mouth the politically correct party line about work-life balance” while the company demands access to all of your waking hours attitudes that pervade the big companies in the valley these days, and it feels very close to being real.
So Mae travels further into The Circle. Her own actions set her up as a pioneer at the company and she ends up going “transparent,” carrying one of The Circle’s cameras on her person at all times, becoming the tour guide to the world inside The Circle. That is, in essence, her new job. Everything she says or does is recorded and broadcast live and she wanders The Circle campus. She can turn the camera off while she sleeps and can mute the audio for up to three minutes while using the restroom, but otherwise everything she sees, hears, and does goes out live. She is streaming her life all waking hours.
This makes Mae incredibly popular. Millions follow her at key points during her day. Feedback is immediate and almost universally positive. Her influence is huge. If she mentions a product or a person, they are immediately inundated.
Of course, this comes with the common issues we know from the internet. She is popular, but many people feel that they now “know” her. They offer up opinions and feedback on everything she does. A small subset of people ask for favors, demand acknowledgement, and otherwise act entitled. But Mae always responds, representing The Circle as she does. And when she reads aloud a note from her ex-boyfriend critical of Mae and The Circle, the backlash is immediate. Discussion of him and all his flaws surges and it is clear that her followers would make his life hell (or more hellish) if Mae just gave the word.
In the bubble around her, everybody is obviously aware that they are on camera. People’s behavior changes. The Circle wants to create a better society and knows that people are always on their best behavior when watched, so that is good. However, Mae’s friends avoid her and her family dreads her visits. Her friend Annie stays well clear of Mae and her audience. Even Mae feels the pressure of being always on, though she thinks that must be something wrong with her. How can always being her best… because that is what people do when they know they are being watched… cause her so much stress.
And The Circle’s various initiatives to correct the ills of modern society… when you have limitless video cameras, more surveillance is always the answer… go further and further. The only question is, where will things end?